Freedom vs. Fairness: Will America Succumb to the Politics of Envy?
As the third of seven children, I grew up in a family where
fairness issues were constantly bubbling to the surface. It did us no
good. Each of us pleaded in vain for relief from the unequal
division of household chores and duties. And complain though we
would, we could not stop the uneven distribution of presents or
rewards. Our parents did more than reject complaints of unfairness;
they were quick to condemn any display of self-pity.
“Life’s not supposed to be fair,” my father said. “Stop
measuring,” my mother said. “You’re not supposed to measure.”
But this was before a new obsession in American political
life: rising concern over the issue of fairness. Many people have
started to measure – and they are plainly envious of the good
fortune of others. To borrow the words of a Japanese proverb, they
have come to think that the nail that stands up is the nail that should
be hammered down.
That was the spirit of the Occupy movement – on Wall
Street, in Oakland, and many places in between, including four
Missouri cities. Those claiming to be the 99 percent railed
incessantly against the 1 percent. In setting out to make a public
nuisance of themselves, the pity-me protest brigades let the world
know how fed up they are with the unfairness of life.
President Barack Obama has nursed and cultivated this same
sense of grievance. In a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., he invoked
fairness no fewer than 16 times. In one staccato burst, he called for
“a tax code that makes sure everybody pays their fair share . . .
(and) rebuilding the economy based on fair play, a fair shot and a
How fair is that?
Let me put the question another way.
How fair is it to fritter away hundreds of millions of dollars
of taxpayers’ money on green energy companies like Solyndra
which have gone bankrupt?
How fair is it to launch a trillion dollar “stimulus” program that
actually depressed the economy – leaving unemployment higher than it
was before – and then turn around and demand a whole new stimulus
How fair is it to go on the greatest federal spending spree in
modern history – quadrupling the size of the annual deficit and raising
serious concerns about the creditworthiness of the United States – and
then go about the country accusing critics of your profligacy as being
solely concerned with promoting the interests of “millionaires and
How fair is it to use hard times to promote the politics of envy –
when it is your own reckless rhetoric that has done so much to unsettle the
business community and your own policies that have prevented a normal
cyclic recovery from occurring?
The president and others calling for more “fairness” through
bigger government and higher levels of spending seem to have little or no
concern at how their policies and ideas are eroding economic and political
- They are calling for the government’s right to claim more of
your income to spend any way the government sees fit (e.g., on
silly “job creation” programs that wind up going bust and
leaving taxpayers on the hook).
- They are using “fairness” and allegations of corporate greed
and irresponsibility in order to justify a vast expansion in
regulation and government control over business and
- And everywhere – including here in Missouri – they aim to
enlarge the public sector, even though that drains money and
jobs out of the private sector.
No one would pretend that the ultimate goal of free-market
capitalism is equal outcomes for different people, regardless of talent,
effort, or sheer luck. That is a socialist agenda. But neither is the free
market – as our president suggests – a place where the rich prey
ceaselessly upon the poor and “everyone is on their own.” That is an
absurd caricature of free enterprise and more than 200 years of American
In fact, the essence of free-market capitalism is voluntary
exchange for mutual benefit. People satisfy their own needs by competing
to satisfy the needs of others.
My parents understood that. They expected their children to
compete and enjoy the benefits of living in a country that has produced
unparalleled wealth and opportunity for its people. But they did not want
us to go about our lives with misplaced expectations of fairness – or to fall
prey to the diseases of envy and self-pity.
Andrew B. Wilson is a resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me
Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri Public Policy.